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NFL Preview - Dallas (3-3) at Philadelphia (3-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - There should be no shortage of points when the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles battle for sole possession of first place in the NFC East Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Cowboys and Eagles have proven they can score, but they also have trouble keeping opponents off the board. Dallas is second in the NFL with an average of 30.5 points per game and Philadelphia is fourth with 27.2 ppg.
On the contrary, the Eagles are 29th in points allowed (29.8) and Dallas is 21st (25.3). Defense should be at a minimum between these NFC East rivals, especially for the Eagles, who are 31st against the pass (314.5) and dead last in total yards allowed (420.2).
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is probably chomping at the bit to get after the Eagles' secondary. Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said his unit must be aggressive in disrupting Romo and Dallas' offensive game plan.
"When you study him on film, he's either really hot or really off, and sometimes it's through the course of one single game," Davis said. "He can be hot in the first half and second half cold, and vice versa. You've got to play him all the way through four quarters. You've got to challenge the receivers and challenge him to find the opening, and keep moving in on him. I think he'll make some plays and I think that he'll make some mistakes."
Romo wasn't at his best his last time out, a 31-16 win over the division-rival Washington Redskins Sunday night. He had his lowest rating of the season at 72.9 and completed 18-of-30 passes for a season-low 170 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception. Romo, of course, was coming off a record performance in a heart-breaking 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos in which he threw for a franchise-record 506 yards and five TDs. However, his interception late in the game enabled the Broncos to march into scoring position for the win.
The reason why the Cowboys are in first place is because of Romo, who is tied for second in the NFL with 14 TD passes. But besides scoring points, the Cowboys' offense still needs some work. The Cowboys are 11th in passing yards (265.0), so Romo has to be more consistent there, and 13th in total yards (349.8). The Cowboys have three pass catchers with more than 300 yards receiving in Dez Bryant (459 yards, 6 TD), tight end Jason Witten (340 yards, 3 TD) and Terrance Williams (309 yards, 2 TD).
It's good to have threats across the field, but a running game is necessary to keep defenses honest. DeMaro Murray was doing that through the first six games until a sprained left knee versus the Redskins ended his night. Murray, who has 428 yards rushing and three touchdowns, is expected to miss Sunday's game in south Philly.
"We'll miss him certainly this coming week," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, according to the team's website. "But we'll see from there."
Murray, though, didn't rule himself out.
"I'm preparing like I'm playing this week, the way I'm preparing mentally in the classroom, physically on the field," Murray said. "We haven't said which way, what we're going to do yet. It all depends on how comfortable I am. We were able to do some things today, and I felt good."
If Murray does miss the game, rookie Joseph Randle will most likely handle the load in the backfield. Randle posted 17 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries in relief of Murray against the Redskins.
The Eagles are allowing 105.7 rushing yards per game, and defending the run is actually their calling card on defense. But don't count on them for much else. They are struggling to get to the quarterback as evidenced by 13 sacks through six games and have just six interceptions.
In a 31-20 victory at Tampa Bay last weekend, Philadelphia allowed 351 yards to the Buccaneers and recorded an interception. The Eagles were almost beaten by a rookie quarterback in Mike Glennon, who passed for 272 yards and a pair of touchdowns to keep it close until Tampa Bay allowed 10 points in the decisive fourth quarter. Bucs running back Doug Martin was held to 67 yards on 16 carries and wide receiver Vincent Jackson was the lone bright spot with 114 yards and two TDs on nine receptions.
Still, Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was pleased with the defense.
"Our defense did a really good job," Kelly said. "They got pressure on the quarterback. There were a couple of third and longs there that I think we would want back, but overall we were around the ball. We kept the ball in front of us. We're getting better each week and we'll take this one and we'll grow from it and we'll go from there."
Tampa Bay was 6-of-15 on third down, while the Eagles were 7-of-14.
Eagles cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher, who had an interception Sunday, and Cary Williams have a difficult chore in trying to slow down Romo and the Cowboys' offense. Bryant has emerged as one of the more dynamic wideouts in the game and Witten can still cause problems despite losing a step. Tackling, collapsing the pocket and safety play have always been an issue with the Eagles and they hope to improve on that this week.
Safety Patrick Chung is hoping his shoulder issue is in the past and he left Sunday's win against the Bucs with the same problem. Rookie Earl Wolff will step in again if Chung can't go.
"Pat will be limited," Kelly said Wednesday. "He ran around a little bit yesterday. It really just depends on how he can handle his shoulder and what he can do from a function standpoint."
The Cowboys, who are 2-0 in the NFC East and 3-0 in the conference, won both meetings against the Eagles last season by a combined score of 76-56. The Eagle are also 2-0 in division play and 3-0 against the NFC, and have lost six of the previous nine matchups with Dallas. The Cowboys are 61-47 in the series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It appears Eagles quarterback Nick Foles will make his second start of the season because Michael Vick is still nursing a hamstring injury. Vick said the injury, which occurred a few weeks ago against the Giants, is worse than what he thought and will keep him from playing.
"I'm not playing this week," Vick said. "Every day I'm just working and trying to get better. I just can't rush it."
Foles, though, made his first start of the season last week in Tampa Bay and earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week for completing 22-of-31 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns, including two to DeSean Jackson. Foles also rushed for a score in the victory.
The offense has continued to click under Foles, who's taller than Vick and gets rid of the ball faster, too. While Vick struggles to read defenses and find an open receiver, Foles' height enables him to look around and hit his targets across the field. Philadelphia hasn't missed a beat without Vick, a dangerous weapon in the ground attack, and is third in total yards (449.8) and fourth in points scored (27.2).
Foles will try to exploit a weak Dallas secondary, which is 30th in both defending the pass (308.2) and yards allowed (413.2). Jackson is second in the NFL with 589 receiving yards and has three TDs in the last two games. The Cowboys will try to take Jackson out of his game with safety help up top.
The Eagles are the top rushing team in the NFL thanks to Vick and running back LeSean McCoy. Dallas is 14th against the run, allowing 105.0 yards per game on the ground, and should expect a heavy load of McCoy, who was able to penetrate the Bucs' tough run defense for 116 yards on 25 carries. He has three 100-yard games this season and leads the NFL with 630 rushing yards and 871 yards from scrimmage. McCoy and the Eagles offense are hoping tackle Jason Peters is healthy enough to play after injuring his shoulder against the Buccaneers.
Dallas allowed 433 yards (216 rushing) to the Redskins and could also be without star linebacker DeMarcus Ware because of a thigh injury. The durable Ware, who has never missed a game, tweaked his leg on a rush against the Redskins Sunday night. Cowboys defensive tackle and sack leader Jason Hatcher knows his responsibility will rise if Ware is unable to shake his leg issue.
"I'm the leader of this D-line now with D-Ware gone," Hatcher said. "I've got to hold these guys accountable to play the game the right way and play their butts off and don't approach the game like they're backups. I talked to them after the game and said, 'You guys are starters, so prepare like a starter this week.' I've got to do my job as a leader to get these boys ready."
Kyle Wilber's role will increase, too, on the defensive line. Wilber had a strip sack and fumble last week.
The Eagles have lost eight in a row at home, last prevailing at the Linc on Sept. 30 versus the Giants in 2012. The Cowboys are winless in their last three games outside of Big D. Something has to give there and Philadelphia will give their frenzy faithful something to cheer about with a big win to take over sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
Not that the Philly fans need an incentive for rowdiness with Dallas in town, but it's been a while since they witnessed a win at home. Expect a back-and- forth battle between a pair of rivals with mediocre defenses and another efficient outing from Foles. Romo will get his numbers as well.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 34, Cowboys 26
10/18 09:24:27 ET